Kunisada, Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road - Nekozuka the Cat Witch at Shirasuga

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Actors at the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road: Nekozuka the Cat Witch at Shirasuga, 1852. Oban.

The best piece from a groundbreaking and hugely successful series pairing actor roles with the stations of the Tokaido Road. Print artists during the mid-century were plagued by legislation forbidding the naming and depiction of actors. Artists such as Kunisada who made their living from the theatre looked for increasingly complicated work-rounds… producing a landscape series with figures (unnamed) was one such strategy. Kunisada was apparently inspired by the actor Onoe Kikugoro III who walked the route, performing ad hoc dramas at different stations along the way. Kunisada used landscape prints from Hiroshige’s Hoeido edition of 1831 as the backdrops, a practice quite common at the time. In front of these borrowed scenes he depicted living and dead actors in scenes from plays that sometimes relate to the landscape or station depicted in the background. The series was an instant success: songs comparing Kunisada to great culinary delicacies and calling him the "Flower of Edo" were composed in his honour. Other series followed, notably one on the same theme set against Kisokaido Road backgrounds.

This is a great print, and the masterpiece of the series. It depicts Kunisada’s inspiration, Onoe Kikugoro III as Nekozuka, a cat witch from a kabuki drama set in Shirasuga near to the landscape in the background. The large cartouche on the right contains the title, and the stage furniture for the play. In keeping with the law at the time, Kikugoro is unnamed.  The intriguing series is yet to be fully catalogued and translated. Horst Graebner has done valuable research into the series and estimates that as many as 218 prints were made, and that even more intriguingly, some of these prints were designed if not as diptychs then at least to be seen together. The juxtaposition of the prints may have given greater layers of meaning to the very well informed print buying public at the time.

The majority of copies of this print have very bad discolouration to the face of the figure, this copy is very clean, colour and impression are fine and condition is very good. Some album binding holes. Sebastian Izzard devotes a whole page to the print in Kunisada’s World, Japan Society 1993 (pg 89).

Published by Sumiyoshiya Masagoro.

35 x 24 cm.